Coincidence? Nah.

I am a firm believer of divine intervention. I believe that a divine being walks with me always, and has the power to shape events and circumstances around me. Over the last few years in particular I’ve noticed things just happening (or not happening) for me when it could have just as easily gone the other way. Some might call it luck, some might say coincidence. But as philosopher, Théophile Gautier, once said, “Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when He does not want to sign.”

As you know, I live in New York City – the city that seems to consist of 1 million married people and 7 million singles – and a few years ago, after trying every dating app ever created, I gave up on the whole idea of finding love in this City. I relegated myself to accepting that I’ll probably be single forever. But then fast forward to this past February, when a very good friend of mine decided on a whim to celebrate her birthday by hosting a small get together at her apartment. Let me set the stage for you: I, the workaholic home-body, received a text message in the early afternoon of a Wednesday telling me to come out that night for some Hennessy and chicken (yes, she’s ratchet and I love her for it)… So as you can probably guess, my initial reaction was that there’s no way I’ll get off work in time, and then I thought that even if I did– Hennessey? On a Wednesday night? I would absolutely regret that decision in the morning. But then, by some quirk of fate (as the saying goes), I looked at the clock around 4pm and realized I had nothing else to work on. I killed another hour or so waiting to see if any work would come in, but it ended up being quiet for the rest of the day. Even to the point that I was concerned that I actually wouldn’t even have anything to work on the next day, either! So I had no excuse not to go anymore – I left work, went home to get cute, and headed to the party.

Long-story-short, the next weekend I was on a date with a young fellow who was also in attendance at her party. He had great energy, held my interest, could make me laugh and just made me feel like me! Our connection was effortless. But, the crazy part is that he didn’t really meet any of my other requirements for men. If you’re curious what I’m talking about, take a quick look at my prior post, “Glitter vs Gold”). So, honestly, as much as I enjoyed being around him, I struggled with taking this thing – whatever it was becoming – seriously. If he isn’t who I would have normally gone for, and isn’t who other people would expect for me, why am I even wasting my time? We could kick it, but I refused to believe it would turn into anything worth talking about. I brushed it off to friends and even to him, so much so that everyone around me was literally confused by how misaligned my actions and my words were when it came to him.

Then a few months later I went on a pretty amazing vacation to Greece with my sister, my cousin and the same girl who had celebrated her birthday that night, and while sitting at a local Athenian restaurant eating some pretty amazing calamari and drinking a lot of free wine, they broke me. They saw right through the front of “oh we’re just friends” and the denial that I wanted anything more. By being forced to look them in the eye, a mirror was held up to my face for the first time. And to make matters worse, it happened to be only the first day of a two week vacation so there was nowhere to hide… Ultimately, they made me realize that for some unexplainable reason, I really like being around him and the way he makes me feel, and that I don’t need to justify him (or us) to anyone – including myself. So the day after I got back from Greece, I got a boyfriend.

But just because the label changes doesn’t mean that the concerns immediately go away. I still find myself periodically looking at things he does or says or situations he and I find ourselves in and thinking to myself, “this is why it will never work.” And today happened to be one of those days.  We took a quick road trip Upstate to go apple-picking. He had done a few things the night before (that I was still harping on) and then he dropped another tidbit of information on me that morning, so I was all in my feelings as we made the drive.  Plus, I had been fighting a migraine all morning, probably from stressing over the idea that just as we were starting to go public it was already falling apart. But then God…

We had been riding in silence for a little while as I tried to Zen out and let the aspirin kick in.  The only sound in the car was the music. He had no idea of the things that had been running through my mind all morning, but knew I had a headache so he, too, was quiet and just vibing to the music as he drove. My eyes were closed as I tried to will my headache to go away, so when the song came on I was forced to really listen to the words.

“Come mess with a real one;

You’re one in a million;

Don’t let a lot of people in, but you get admission;

And I don’t let my walls down, but I see us building;

And you ain’t a feeling,”

I had to open my eyes and see what song it was! The screen on the radio just said “H.E.R. Vol. 1” and showed the title of the song as “Facts.” I asked him who the singer was and he said, “no one knows! The artist just dropped a project under the name H.E.R. and no one knows who it is.” He showed me the album cover and it was simply a silhouette of woman – no picture of her face. So I closed my eyes back, and kept listening (you can listen to it on SoundCloud by clicking here):

Just the beginning;

It don’t get no better;

As long as you hold me down, I’ll be up for whatever;

And I love the way you look at me, ‘cause I see forever;

Was ready before but I want you now more than ever;

You make me want to put my phone down;

When we’re alone, I want to zone out;

Baby, with you, I ain’t got no doubts;

I’m just trying to let you know now;

Facts;

You were the one I was missing;

The opposite of fiction;

And that’s facts;

Ooh, it’s a given;

I don’t care ’bout opinions;

And that’s facts; Facts;

And that’s facts; You were the one I was missing…”

Now, some of you might say it’s coincidence. Some might even say he intentionally put that song on (which he didn’t; he was just playing the album). But regardless of why it was played, that was exactly what I needed to hear at that exact moment. It was immediately my reminder that none of that other stuff matters. A reminder that we’re building something here, even if I don’t know what exactly that is yet. And I don’t know about you, but I believe that only God could have orchestrated giving me what I needed exactly at the moment I needed it.  The very next day at church my Pastor spoke about being available for God’s grace and how so many of us are unable to see the possibilities and opportunities in our lives because we are fixated on the challenge in front of us. Staying in your comfort zone will not get you to your greatness.

So although I am still bothered by the things I’m bothered by (which I ultimately did speak to him about), the difference now is that I am not drastically equating it with being the end-all-be-all of our relationship. My faith in God, and the fact that He walks with me always, brought me back to what’s important—it put me back on the path I believe I’m supposed to be on.

And this was just one example. I could probably write a book with how often this happens to me! Whether it’s clearing my schedule so I can be at the right place at the right time, trapping me in a foreign country so I can work through my issues undistracted, or even as simple as playing a song that says just the right words, I know that there’s something bigger than me at play. And evidence that God will intercede on my behalf is all the reassurance I need to go after the things I want in life.

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Did I do it for the ‘Gram?

A few months ago, a poet made me wonder if I would “still want to travel to that country if [I] could not take [my] camera with [me]” (see “Simple Words; Hard Truths”). And I feel so relieved because currently I am sitting on a patio in the neighborhood of Imerovigli on the island of Santorini, Greece (which is serving as my Lenox Stoop for the time-being) and the last thing on my mind is where my camera is. Instead, I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun in my face and the freedom to write whatever comes to mind.

For about 10 days now, a group of girlfriends and I have been island-hopping throughout Greece and it has been an amazing experience of fellowship, exploration, fun and relaxation. We have laughed, I have cried, and we’ve met so many people, tried new foods and seen the sights, that it has truly been one of the best experiences of my life.

If you follow me on Instagram, then you might be thinking: “But you are taking a lot of pictures and posting them to social media; is that not the point Waheed was making?” And, honestly, at the time I wrote “Simple Words; Hard Truths” that’s what I thought, too. But I’ve realized that simply posting pictures does not mean that you are appropriating a culture – it means that you are instantly sharing your experiences with others in a way that was not possible 10-15 years ago. The number of likes you get is simply evidence that other people appreciate and support what you’re doing, seeing and experiencing, and that they are happy that you shared it with them.  You may even be sparking something in them to go visit these places (or any place at all) when they might not otherwise have thought to do so.

Add to that the point that Greece in particular is currently dealing with an economic crisis and they are largely dependent on the revenue from tourism to help them climb out of debt. So the fact that I’m spending my Euros to have a great time here when I could have gone anywhere is not taken for granted by the locals.  They are so appreciative of the business and they hope I’ll spread the word and tell everyone I know to come visit their country.

Still, the point Waheed was making is not lost on me, and I can truthfully say that learning more about the people and local cultures in Greece has been a sincere desire of mine and everyone else on this trip with me. Everything from understanding how the volcanic acid in the soil causes the wine to have a unique taste to trying local foods like Fava and hearing how to say Greek words properly, are all things that we were intentional about learning (and if you’re wondering, “gyro” is actually pronounced “hero”, but not like a New Yorker talking about Superman; rather the “h” is breathy and has more of a Spanish “qui” sound like “key-ro” – which probably still sounds really confusing so you should just go ahead and make plans to visit Greece yourself and hear it first hand!).

And not only did I learn a lot while on this trip, but I think we also left an impact as well. Four Black girls from the States are hard to miss around here, and we’ve been chatting with locals and tourists alike, having fun and bringing up the energy around us on a regular basis. We also spoke our mind when we didn’t agree with how we were being treated.  So I have to believe that those who encountered us have also been affected by our visit, and I hope that we’ve left an overall positive impact on them as well.

Another reason why I love to travel is because of the distance it puts between me and my everyday life. When I’m in a different environment, a different country and a different time zone I’m forced to truly check-out of all the things that were stressing me out or clouding my thoughts back home. It lets me hit the reset button and I become open to new inspiration and ideas without even realizing. So many of us get caught up in work and family life that we make excuses for why we can’t or shouldn’t take time off.  But we all get a certain amount of vacation days every year for a reason! Why are you saving yours??

My parents (my dad in particular) didn’t really put much emphasis on taking time off when we were growing up, and to this day still don’t “vacation” at all. I can recall hearing about them taking a cruise to the Caribbean when I was really young, and they took us to Disney World when I was about 8 or 9 years old, but otherwise I cannot think of a time when my parents took a trip for the sole purpose of being on vacation. They do travel often for family reunions and visiting their parents and grandchildren, but those are normally weekend trips and some are even just overnight! So when I tell my dad that I’m going to Barbados or South Africa or Greece for no reason at all other than to get away for a week or two, I get a reaction that, at least initially, feels like judgment. Those types of reactions from family, friends, and even a boss or co-worker can be just enough to deter us from doing the thing we actually need the most: rejuvenating ourselves.

But after talking about it with my sister and the other girls on this trip, I realized that it may actually be misunderstanding rather than judgment. My father is the type to never take time off from work, but he also truly loves what he does and would probably do it for free if he could.  And for him, relaxation is reading the newspaper, gardening or spending a weekend at his parents’ house watching the game with his dad. So in his mind he may not understand why I need to go to a completely different country for a week or two in order to truly relax.  But I do think that he is proud to have raised children who have those opportunities; children who are capable of discerning what makes them happiest and are strong enough to pursue those things despite what others may say or think. And I even believe that after seeing us explore the world, he is now more open to the idea as well…

So to answer the question, yes I would still go if I couldn’t take my camera with me – but I think that having my camera brings another level of impact that is sometimes lost in translation: lighting subtle fires of curiosity in others.

And for that reason, you’ll continue to see my trip all up on Instagram…

 

Can I?

Having a sibling close in age is a blessing – it’s like growing up with an automatic best friend. And when you have a twin it’s even more so the case!  From birth you literally do everything together and are subject to an almost identical adolescence that builds a deep understanding and unshakable bond with another person from an early age. And in a life where what we all desire the most is companionship, having that relationship from the very start lessens the magnitude of that yearning.

Trust me, I know. Twenty Eight years ago my sister was born thirty seven minutes after I was (which is long for twins but obviously close in the grand scheme of things), and we have been inseparable most of our lives.  We’ve always had separate identities, though, and are polar opposites in almost every respect of our personalities: she is the fun, creative type while I have always been the boring bookworm; she eats healthy (or at least tries to) while often the only vegetables in my diet are the lettuce and tomato on my cheeseburger.  However, despite our differences we’ve managed to maintain largely the same circle of friends and have similar interests – so growing up, everyone knew that when you saw one, the other wasn’t too far behind.

We never experienced any real sense of separation until college.  She stayed local and went to the university in our hometown while I traveled almost 1,000 miles to attend college in Atlanta. The one question we were constantly asked as high school graduation approached was “how do you feel about separating?” One of our classmates even wrote an article in the local newspaper about us! The fact that anyone (let alone everyone we encountered) would be curious about that decision and its potential impact on our relationship is a testament to how close we were. But honestly, I was never concerned. Although it was the early 2000s, there was such a thing as cellphones, and Skype made its appearance soon after we graduated so I knew I could still talk to her whenever I wanted. Living separately didn’t seem like a big deal at all – it actually made me excited!

I wanted to see who we’d become once no one knew us as “the twins”; how we’d do when we were forced to make friends and build real bonds with other people. Essentially, I was excited to see how we’d fare on our own out in the world – and if I do say so myself, I think we did pretty damn good. She maintained friendships from high school and grew really close to her freshman-year roommates, got a boyfriend and juggled a part-time job with school work and externships, while I also developed friendships with a group of girls right away and soon added sorority sisters to the mix, I built bonds with several professors and graduated with the highest GPA in my major.

Fast forwarding a bit, we were reunited in New York City a year after we graduated from college. But I don’t mean that to sound like we didn’t see each other for 5 years… We visited each other often during that time, though we were very much living and thriving in different cities.  Yet when she joined me in NYC it was like we had never parted. We obviously were older and more mature, but becoming roommates again was like sliding my feet into my favorite fuzzy slippers. It was home.

My other half was back, and we did everything together! I dragged her out drinking and partying with my law school friends and linesisters, and she made sure we visited funky new restaurants and gourmet meatball stands, went to farmers markets and tried spinning classes. But don’t get me wrong, like any other roommates we have our issues.  She hates how I let my dishes stack up in the sink for days and then go on cleaning sprees of the entire apartment (including moving her stuff from where she left it), and I can’t deal with how many different hair products she has brought into our tiny apartments over the years and how she never (ever) closes the medicine-cabinet or cupboard doors, but somehow the living arrangement has largely worked for us.

However, we’ve now been living together for over 5 years and unfortunately all I’ve been able to think about lately is having my own space. I guess it’s only “unfortunately” depending on how you look at it. We’re almost 30 years old and I’ve only lived alone for a total of 15 months of my entire life – and I don’t think my sister ever has.  Some would argue that THAT is what’s unfortunate. That you need time alone to grow as an individual, to push your own limits and relish in your own space.

Having a roommate, even though you may love her to the moon and back, causes you to have to compromise always.  You have to be mindful of leaving your stuff in common places, sharing the TV, and not accidentally eating her special spaghetti sauce (oops). You have to consider her feelings when you invite people over – after all, maybe she wanted to sit on the couch in her pajamas and twist her hair!  But at the same time, you are entitled to invite whoever you want because it’s your space, too.  So maybe she finds herself twisting her hair in her room…  Though they seem minor, these types of things can wear on you over time. And I feel like we all come to a point where we are just ready to have our own space – and we shouldn’t feel bad about it.  Yet for some reason, I can’t shake this feeling of guilt.

At this age I feel like there will be a sense of finality to separating; this time would probably be the last – are we ready for that? Does she feel the same way, or will she take it as rejection or abandonment? Is it the right time for us to branch out and away from each other? Are we missing out on personal growth by continuing to rely so heavily on one another?

I guess part of growing up is being honest about what you want and need in order to be your best self. And maybe part of being the “older” sister is sometimes bearing the responsibility of making the first move, pushing your siblings outside of their comfort zones – reassuring them that they can do it by first having the confidence that you, yourself, can.

But, can I?

The World is Her Oyster

About two weeks ago I was on a pretty epic and much needed vacay. First stop was Miami. Some girlfriends and I spent 5 gloriously drunken days in one of my favorite U.S. cities.  Point of the trip?  Just because.  Our days were filled with pool parties, brunches and South Beach lounging while our nights had a life of their own, consisting of bottle service at the iconic LIV on Sundays where we found ourselves in the midst of a spontaneous Lil’ Wayne concert, watching the sun come up while eating steak and eggs, an interesting-to-say-the-least night at King of Diamonds and a surprisingly lit bar hopping experience in the Art-Deco district.  Even when we spent one morning on a boat riding around Star Island recovering from hangovers, somehow mimosas and Beyoncé twerk sessions were still involved.  I felt like I was 21 again, partying all night and relaxing all day – not a care in the world.

The next stop was Atlanta for a bachelorette weekend… And rumor has it that the first night ended with me letting an armed police officer at Waffle House know that I was an officer of the court, so you already know that there was an extremely high level of intoxication involved and an equally high sense of feeling carefree (maybe even too much of both).  And even though I was completely exhausted when I returned to New York, I also felt thoroughly rejuvenated.  I was inspired to pick up some hobbies that I had let fall to the wayside, and I decided to bite the bullet and splurge on a trip out to LA to celebrate a friend’s “flirty thirty” weekend that is scheduled to take place in a few weeks.  I had had such a great time during my travels that I wanted it all to just keep on going.

But then that first week back to work was a complete 180-degree turn. It was back to the life of conference calls and meetings, reports and deadlines. I was up bright and early to mix and mingle with clients at a breakfast panel one morning and stayed late to finish reviewing a draft joint venture agreement.  The only remnants left of my glorious days of freedom were my hairstyle and skin tone: Senegalese twists flowing down my back and milk chocolate skin freshly sun-kissed with the tan lines to prove it.

Luckily, my firm is great in that I didn’t have to deal with weird looks or sly innuendos about the new look, and even the few co-workers who follow me on social media praised me for having what they could tell was an amazing time off.  I obviously didn’t give all of the juicy details to my bosses but had no shame in letting them know that I was largely drunk the entire time I was away, and most of them just laughed and told me they were glad I had fun.  So albeit a different environment and not as carefree, I was still me; not hiding or trying to conform to what I thought people expected of me – and it was OK.

I found an old post from about 3 years ago, where I described myself as a chameleon, writing:

“I’m blessed to be able to blend well in many settings. But, I am so busy changing red, and blue, and purple that sometimes I feel like I don’t even know what my true color is…”

And as I thought about writing this, that post just kept popping into my mind. Was I the real me when I was inappropriately intoxicated at Waffle House?  Or am I the real me when I’m going back and forth with opposing counsel about the sunset provision of an environmental indemnity agreement?  Is the real Marissa the person who spends her weekends binge watching trashy TV, or the person who volunteers at the local community center on Saturdays to host economic empowerment workshops?  Is she meant to be a lawyer, or is she the hat maker? I thought she was a writer? No, she’s a photographer, right?

Despite my chameleon complex, I am learning that I am all of those things wrapped up in one. The serious, intelligent lawyer can also be the idiotic drunken girl sometimes, or the creative writer. I can be the lazy girl who sits in her pajamas all day or I can museum-hop around New York City for fun.  This Marissa does not like to be boxed into certain stereotypes or categories; I am everything you expect me to be and everything you don’t.  So whenever someone thinks they have me pegged, I just laugh and sharpen my oyster knife…

Finding My Magic

I’ve always thought “Black Girls Rock” and “Black Girl Magic” were cute phrases and catchy hashtags, but never really took them seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I do think Black women are freaking rock stars and that we have an unexplainable magic when we put our minds to something; however, I didn’t and don’t necessarily expect them to invoke any meaningful change. Rather I see them more as an ode to ourselves – our way of supporting ourselves and the people who look like us because no one else is going to. But something about sitting and watching the entire Black Girls Rock award show the other night actually did remind me of my own spark to do better – to be better.

I’ve been struggling with finding my passion for a few years now.  First, I wanted to learn to play guitar and write music, then I was convinced I should be a milliner and change the world one big-headed hat at a time.  I had a stint in economic empowerment where I brought in financial experts to offer trainings to low- and middle-class black folks in Harlem, I’ve helped promote black owned businesses by creating an Instagram page focused on just that and I’ve dabbled in photography. And now, as you can see, my passion project is blogging to work through my own personal stuff (and hopefully help someone else along the way).  But really, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been struggling with this my entire life.

The earliest career goal of mine that I can remember was to be a teacher. I was all about it and at the age of about 8 or 9 I even started tutoring younger kids. I prepared lesson plans and made worksheets for them to practice their writing and simple math problems – you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t already “Ms. Coleman, kindergarten teacher.” But that eventually morphed into wanting to be a writer, then a doctor, then a sports agent and eventually I settled on being an attorney.

One thing you’ve probably noticed about my back-story is that none of my supposed “interests” have anything in common!  Hence, my enrollment in a liberal arts college… I think I knew, at least subconsciously, that I needed time to figure it out. I started college as a political science major, but I quickly ruled that out when I realized I have no patience for politics.  I was required to take courses in the sciences, humanities, in the arts and in business. Having no idea what my major should be, I appreciated the diversity of courses.

My advisor/mentor at Spelman, Dean Baxter, had also been my English 101 professor and suggested that I switch my major to English. I had always loved reading and writing (remember, at one point I even wanted to be a writer) so I made the switch, and the rest is history. Not only did we explore Shakespeare, Dickens and Wharton, but I was exposed to Hurston, Baldwin, Toomer and Ellison. I fell in love with reading again and learned so much about myself in the process. But even then, my heart didn’t skip a beat at the thought of pursuing writing creatively on my own. I had made up my mind to be an attorney at that point so that was my passion — or so I thought.

See, I envy people who wake up every morning and chase after dreams of acting or singing or becoming a doctor or teacher. People who know what their calling is and have no choice but to follow it. They remind me of that chant you sing in church when you feel the spirit moving: “I, I’ve got a praise, I’ve got a praise and I’ve gotta get out! I’ve got a praaaaaaaise!!” Like it’s a compulsion and you have no control — all you know is that that thing is what you want to do; is what you have to do.

I don’t have that. I don’t feel like that when it comes to my legal practice. I do like what I do and I think it’s important and impactful in different respects — I just don’t feel like it’s my calling. And what’s worse is that I have no clue what my calling actually is.  But what I do know is that, if nothing else, I’m compelled to keep looking.  I cannot be one of those people who settles into a career she doesn’t love just because it’s what she knows and is good at it.

I watched a TED Talk the other day from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist who studies “originals”, and he argued that one of the reasons why original thinkers are successful is because they don’t get deterred by bad ideas.  He said that “you need a few bad ideas before you can get to the good ones.”  Those who stop trying after a few failures will never see their full potential… So I’ll keep my day job for now. But I can guaranty that my list of interests/hobbies/passion projects will continue to get longer and more diverse in the interim.

Simple Words; Hard Truths

I don’t know about you, but I rely pretty heavily on my friends to keep me up on the latest happenings in various social circles – let’s face it, there’s way too many for me to keep track of on my own. And, most recently, two of them were telling me about a book of poetry that was the newest craze and that I absolutely had to get. I asked them, “who just sits and reads a book of poems for fun? Do you read just one poem and put the book down, or are there chapters so that you’re reading mad poems back to back?” I was completely confused.  Although I love reading and even majored in English in college, my experience with poetry up to this point has been limited to specific works suggested by professors to spark classroom discussion – I’d never had or wanted a book of poems for leisurely reading (unless you count Dr. Seuss, who obviously was robbed of the Nobel Prize).  But their response was simple: “No chapters; you can read whatever you want – read one and think about it or read a bunch and see how you feel.”

They had sufficiently piqued my curiosity so I went on Amazon later that night, found Salt by Nayyirah Waheed and hit the checkout button.

I can’t lie to you, though, for the first few days after it arrived the book sat on my dresser untouched. Something about it was just daunting to me. I once read that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful” (Rita Dove)– and as beautiful as that concept seems, poems have historically had a way of either going completely over my head or being so literal that I didn’t see them as interesting.

When I finally sat down to read I found myself flipping pages extremely quickly – for me it was a page turner of a different sort. Each poem barely filled a page, and some were only one line!  Like, bruh, really?  They were interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but honestly I just felt silly.  Then, around 10 pages in, right as I was about to give up and put the book down, I read this:

would

you still want to travel to

that

country

if

you could not take a camera with you.

 — a question of appropriation

And then I did have to put the book down. Not because I was over it or because I thought reading a book of poetry for fun was pointless.  Rather, I had to put it down because that messed with my spirit.

I have been the proud holder of a U.S. Passport for only a few years and as a result have accumulated only a few stamps so far, but in that short time and from only few experiences I have literally fallen in love with travelling – even if where I’m headed doesn’t require a passport. I went to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for Thanksgiving one year and got to experience both a larger African city where there were tourists galore and a population of locals more diverse than I had expected, as well as a more rural town where I ate game-meat such as zebra and wildebeest and where electricity was completely shut off every day in the middle of the day to conserve energy (you read that right: during the hottest part of the day – in AFRICA of all places – there was no electricity for a few hours anywhere in town).  I also spent a spring break in Barbados with a group of classmates and we explored caves, rode jet skis and often danced the night away with the locals.  And when my sister and I went to Puerto Rico last fall we literally spent all day every day at the beach and did little to nothing else – and it was glorious.

Travel has afforded me a variety of experiences in a short amount of time and I am fortunate to have made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve made it my personal mission to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year, to drag my sister and my friends to as many places as I can, and to not-so-subtly nudge my extended family members into planning family trips as well (I haven’t yet been successful at the last one, but I’ll break them one day!).

I often post my adventures to Instagram and Facebook, share them in photo albums and group chats, and talk about them to whoever is willing to listen. But I never once thought that my actions could potentially be assisting in the further appropriation or commodification of local cultures and people. I am obviously familiar with these phenomena on a conceptual level, but the thought that I might be personally contributing to their occurrence truly escaped me — there was no feigned ignorance here, just a young woman with a genuine excitement for travel birthed from having the time and the means.

So that very simple question posed by Waheed hit me hard; it slapped me right across the face, and the intentions and implications behind my newfound love were immediately questioned. Had I been blind to my own actions?  Do I want to go to these places just to say that I was there? Is it about bragging? Is it about curiosity? Am I embracing a sense of freedom that my parents didn’t have or am I only chasing after one? Do I care to learn more about the people and cultures I visit?  Or is my focus instead on how many likes my pictures get on Instagram?

Simply put: would I go if I couldn’t take my camera? And as I was sitting there reading, I honestly could not answer that question… and it freaked me out.

After days of having it on my mind, I still cannot answer the question fully. However, what I can say is that studies show that Millennials (which I learned is defined by most scholars as today’s 18 to 34 year olds, although I think it’s more accurate to describe us as those aged 25 to 34, but what do I know?) are more likely than any other demographic to travel for leisure.  Some might say we are less likely to have children and other major responsibilities at this age so we are in a better position to be able to travel, but at least one article that I read suggested that Millennials with families are even more likely to travel than those of us who do not have those responsibilities.  So I think that at the end of the day we simply have different priorities for our lives than older generations, and travel is one area that we see value in – it factors heavily into the “work-life balance” concept that reigns supreme in our eyes and governs everything that we do.  The question that I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself is what exactly that value is.

I’m planning a trip to Greece this summer, though, so now that my eyes have been opened hopefully I’ll be more cognizant of how I experience my travels and what I ultimately aspire take away from each trip – as well as what it is that I would hope to leave behind. So this conversation is to be continued…

Needless to say, I’m hesitant to pick up that book again – but for different reasons this time. Simple words. Hard truths.

Sometimes I shave my legs…

I was 12 years old when India Arie’s song “Video” first debuted. Given the time period, I’m sure I caught its premier on 106 & Park and I am equally sure that I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the lyrics or message of the song at the time. But it randomly popped up on a playlist I was listening to today and it just validated my soul in a way that I wasn’t anticipating.

I’ve never really been a “girly girl” – unless you count the 5-year-old me who would only wear skirts and refused to go anywhere without a purse. But at some point in middle school I discovered baggy pants and comfy sweatshirts and the rest was history. (But, then again let’s be real, it was the age of TLC and Aaliyah by that time so it’s probably safe to say that every little Black girl in the world was a tomboy.) And to make matters worse, my mother had no patience for doing my and my sister’s hair so we usually had some combination of braids and beads that let us run, swim and play uninhibited.  We were kids and didn’t care if we got dirty or plain and simply looked a straight-up mess. It wasn’t until junior high school that I started getting my hair done and learned what wonders makeup could do to the average face – but, still, by that point I had started playing basketball pretty regularly so my hair was often pulled into some kind of pony tail, and sweatpants with Adidas flip-flops and socks became my outfit of choice.

Even when I graduated from high school and went on to my illustrious alma mater, Spelman College, the first two years you could still catch me in class and walking around campus in hoodies, basketball shorts and, you guessed it, flip flops and socks. But then, almost overnight, at some point during my sophomore year I went from being flip-flop-wearing-Marissa to tight-dress-whipped-hair-Marissa.  Some might attribute it to pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (skee wee!) that year, or perhaps it was because I turned 20 years old and finally grew out of my childish ways. Whatever the reason, the new me had arrived.  I was fresh out of a relationship, had a new social circle and was one year closer to being drinking age. All the necessary fixings for a make-over.

I started to care about wearing designer labels, having a bathroom sink full of makeup and beauty products, ensuring my hair was laid before I stepped foot outside my dorm and always being caught up on the latest issue of Cosmo. But along with that new sense of style and beauty came a yearning for color contacts and hair extensions, an unhealthy jealousy of women who I thought were more attractive than me, and a hatred for all things nappy. It was truly perplexing. Somehow, on a campus full of women of all shapes and sizes and representing the full spectrum of hair texture and skin-tones, one definition of “beauty” remained pervasive in my eyes. And although I often received affirmation of my attractiveness from men and even other women, rather than boosting my self-esteem hindsight suggests that it actually had the opposite effect – it created a dependence on external validation of my beauty.

It wasn’t until I came to what has become my personal mecca, New York City, that I started to recognize and believe that beauty cannot be defined by, or confined to, mainstream standards. I know Atlanta is the self-proclaimed mecca for Black folks, but there’s something that happens when you come to New York. The Black people (and really all people) here are so varied and interesting, representing the eclectic mix of the African diaspora around the world and, most importantly, exuding a freedom and confidence to be their true selves.  Once you’re here you can’t help but embark on your own path of self-discovery. And at every turn, no matter what road you opt to take on that journey, you are greeted by people who understand you; people who truly see you.

A year after moving here I walked into a hair salon in Brooklyn and told them to cut it all off. I was nervous, scared, worried and plain and simply freaked out – but there was also a sense of calm that came over me as I saw my tresses start to hit the floor.  I think in the back of my mind I knew that there were more than a few women who I would see in class the next day who were going to fawn over my natural curl pattern and tell me all the products and techniques that were going to work so well on my hair type.  I knew I had people.  I no longer cared whether others thought I was cute or stylish or if I was measuring up to mainstream ideals of beauty and style.  I was wearing the clothes I wanted to wear, and loving the deep brown of my eyes and chocolate hues of my skin — and, most of all, I was loving my natural kinks and coils.  As I walked out of that hair salon, that need I had had for external validation quickly converted to an internal confidence as I realized that I was finally going to be seen. If my life was a movie, it would be at that point that “Video” would have been cued so that as the camera spans out above me walking down the street the audience would hear India singing beautifully: “every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be, and I know my Creator didn’t make no mistakes on me.”

Well said India, well said.

A Different World

By the time they were my age my dad had taken a job with the city of Buffalo and my mom with a local bank, they were married with two children, had two cars and had already bought their first home.  By comparison, right now I am renting an apartment that’s too expensive to be so small and require me to walk up four flights of stairs (but is in a really great Harlem location and has a washer and dryer in the unit, amen), and I’ve been single with little to no prospects for longer than I’m willing to admit in public, and I either walk or rely on the subway, buses and Uber to get me wherever I need to go – but I also brunch frequently, have way too many clothes, and I make it a point to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year.

So what’s the difference? My parents were toddlers as the Jim Crow era came to an end and teenagers when MLK prophesied of his trip to the mountaintop.  They are from a generation where the sting of segregation and institutionalized racism still permeated every aspect of their lives.  I, on the other hand, came into this world in the late ‘80s when all the hard work of prior generations was beginning to show some impact.  Also, by that time my parents were established in their careers and, although not wealthy in any sense of the word, were comfortable in the life they had built.  I had the privilege and pleasure of growing up in the house my father built with his own hands in a middle class neighborhood, went to a magnet high school that was ranked #4 in the nation at the time, and at the age of 20 I saw a Black family move into the White House.  And although I was (and continue to be) very aware of the struggles of being Black and a woman in this country, I was never made to feel inhibited by those labels.  As my favorite author once said, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all” (Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me).

Don’t misunderstand, my parents had strong role models as they grew up and they truly believed that they could do anything that they set their mind to, but they were also taught that they’d have to work twice as hard just to get half as much.  They put themselves through college, and because they had big responsibilities at relatively young ages they weren’t able to take advantage of what they would call the more lavish lifestyle choices I’ve made for myself.  My father was 1 of only 3 Black students in his class at Cornell and my mother ultimately had to switch to night school so she could balance her time working and raising young children. Further, they were raised in a time where the Black “family unit” was an important symbol – it represented stability, civility and, in some ways, protection.  As a result, their focus at my age was doing whatever they had to do in order to build a strong foundation for their family and to give their children the best opportunities for survival.  My primary focus at this point in my life, however, is simply building a strong me

My generation seems, more than any before us, to have moved away from our parents and our hometowns without looking back, and we are instead taking up residence in some of the busiest metropolitan centers of the world. We stand ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us as we figure out what exactly we want our lives to ultimately look like – even taking destiny into our own hands at times to create the opportunities we want without concern for how we might be perceived by others.  There are many of us who are indeed buying homes, getting married and settling into the stereotypical “adult life”, but it seems like most late-twenty-somethings these days are still weighing their options, thinking 3 moves ahead before deciding when and where to put down roots.  Even those who maybe never left their hometowns remain hesitant to simply accept the lives their parents had because they can’t seem to shake an internal yearning for more.  We are still exploring ourselves emotionally, creatively, financially, religiously, and professionally.  We are unapologetically selfish and resolved to immerse ourselves in any and every single thing that we so desire without any feeling of shame, remorse or inadequacy.

We, Black and Brown Millennials, have the audacity to throw on blinders as we consider that job promotion, career move or new business idea such that the issues of whether we want to be in a serious relationship, get married or have kids become secondary (and sometimes tertiary) concerns.  We are too busy dropping a few thousand on that trip to Phuket or Dubai to think about if it’s the right time to own rather than rent our homes. We aren’t spending time researching which are the best school districts to live in because we are researching best brunch spots instead.  Some may call it naïveté or recklessness, but I choose to see it as the freedom to find my happiness. And not my happiness as a “Black woman,” but rather my happiness as Marissa Coleman.

And while my maternal clock does often cause me to compare my life to what my parents had at this same age, what I’ve realized is that I have something my parents didn’t: the luxury of time and the autonomy it fosters.  Today, people are living longer and having kids later in life so I can take this time to leisurely weigh career goals, travel prospects and ideal proximity to family and friends.  I don’t have any major responsibilities or external pressures influencing what I do with my life or when I should do it, and that’s a freedom that I am now learning to appreciate.

So although I envy what my parents had and continue to have (they’ve been married for 42 years, talk about pressure!), I really wouldn’t change a single aspect of my life so far.  I’ve been blessed with opportunities that my parents and grandparents prayed I’d one day have, and I am going to do everything in my power not to let their sacrifices be in vain. Besides, they love being able to come visit me in “the big city”, and they view it as their opportunity to try restaurants they’ve seen on TV, visit the Schomburg and shop for vintage furniture in Brooklyn.  Between NYC and visiting my brothers in Atlanta, they now have places to go and things to do.  And my brothers have already given them grandchildren so they seem content to let me be for now…

Glitter vs. Gold

I told him, “I’m not one to toot my own horn” but he cut me off and said, “Nah, toot that shit around me. Always.”

As I continue to think critically about my life, where I am and where I want to be, I’ve started a running list of things that I think I’m doing wrong so I can begin to take steps to correct any bad habits. One of those areas appears to be love and relationships – which I just couldn’t understand because, let’s face it, I am a catch!  I’m a beautiful, smart, funny and caring young black woman with a blossoming career in an amazing city.  And I don’t mean that in any arrogant or conceited way, it’s just how I honestly see myself – and how I would describe most of the single women I know.

So what’s wrong with us? For the most part, I think we are each our own biggest problem. I’ve realized that I’m single mostly because I get in my own way.  There’s a clip from the Steve Harvey Show floating around the internet that shows how two materialistic and arrogant sisters overlooked the potential of their blind dates, and while I don’t think I’m as disrespectful as those women were to their dates, I think the essence of the story still hits home for me.  For much of my adult life, I’ve only had eyes for the tall, handsome, late-twenties man with the house, the car, the career and the tailored suit (and although I might be a little extreme, if you’re honest with yourself you’ll probably see that you have some unrealistic requirements as well).  In my eyes, no one else was worth my time.  My Mr. Perfect was out there somewhere, I just had to go on as many “first dates” as possible and I’d finally bump into him…

So first dates is what I did. Over the past two years I’ve joined almost every online dating app, met guys on subways and at parties, and let my friends match me up with who they’d described as “just the guy you need”. But if that first date wasn’t flawless, if he didn’t manage to both make me laugh and think critically, if he wasn’t the flyest guy in the room, and if he didn’t floor me with his resume, then it was on to the next.

But then something crazy happened: I found someone who could be that guy (he had everything except for the car) – but shockingly he wasn’t into me.  At least, not the real me.  It turns out that all he really wanted was the me with a cute little body, a cute little face, and who would be willing to come back to his house for a little dessert (which, if you’re wondering, wasn’t happening).  Talk about throwing your whole world upside down!  How could my Mr. Perfect not be my Mr. Perfect after all?!

I started to question where all of the requirements in my application came from in the first place. Who ever said that a 27-year-old woman at the start of her career needs a man who is around the same age but managed to already have his ducks in a row?  Why is it important for me to be on the arm of a man who turns the head of every other girl in the room?  What am I getting out of him being tall and sexy if he isn’t remotely interested in my opinions and thought processes?  And when has it ever suited a woman like me to simply be someone’s dessert?  To answer my own questions: no one, it’s not, nothing and never.

So I decided to start fresh. No more superficial requirements, I told myself – just begin with “does he make you feel good?” From there, find out what kind of man he is, who he hangs out with, how he treats people when he has nothing to gain. If these are the types of characteristics and qualities that you try to embody personally, I said to myself, why not look for them in a partner? Attraction can grow over time, so don’t worry about that.  With respect to careers, as long as he is passionate about what he does there’s no need to worry about what stage he’s at right now because he’s sure to rise regardless – and black and brown men our age who have managed to stay out of jail, graduate college, and start a career are damn sure entitled to a judgment free zone for this period of their lives while they hustle to make this money.

With all that said, don’t think that I am even remotely advocating for lowering your standards or settling for something you don’t want. I’m simply at a point where I am asking myself to think critically about what I want versus what I need and to, in turn, seek out the qualities and characteristics that matter most to me.  You’ll have to decide if that’s what you’re into and what that would look like for you, just like I’m still figuring out what it means to me.

So far, though, I’ve come to the realization that he just has to make me feel like my best self – like it’s OK to toot my own horn – and I won’t be able to figure out if he does that by giving him one shot to prove himself against unrealistic, superficial standards. The application process of love will take time and it has to be an emotional endeavor; that’s the only way to develop any real connection and fulfillment.  And for me, I’m learning that having someone to uplift me is a great place to start – I have faith that the rest will work itself out.

Promised Land

On a cold Sunday evening in January I was walking home from a meeting with a fellow board member of the NY chapter of Spelman’s alumnae association and we were casually chatting, catching each other up on life since we last spoke. We talked about family and love lives and had the inevitable “state-of-the-career” conversation.

As a late twenty-something woman, one theme that seems to be recurring most amongst myself and my peers is a yearning to figure out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives.  But I don’t mean that in a panicked, soon to be college graduate kind of way which breeds anxiety and uncharted stress levels about the first move in a chess game – we’ve been there, done that already. Rather, our existentialism is in an “I’ve done everything I said I would do, I’ve made it but it doesn’t feel right” kind of way.

We’ve gone to medical school and business school, we’ve worked elbow-to-elbow with top executives and industry big shots, we’ve earned M.A.’s, J.D.’s and D.D.S’s, we are in residencies, at top firms and Fortune 500 companies – yet something feels off. Something is missing.

At this age we had expected to be like those cool older cousins who at family reunions would awe us with their life experiences, fly clothes and deep conversation. We hoped we would feel like Carrie Bradshaw living a fabulous life of partying with celebs and having an epic love story.  We thought making good money and driving nice cars was the end-all and be-all.  Yet, for many of us, the grass doesn’t seem much greener on this side of things.  We’ve taken to finding hobbies, starting businesses, traveling the world, and writing blogs as our outlet, our last ditch effort to figure out what is that thing that makes us tick.

And I don’t know about you, but I see my friends getting married, having kids and settling in their “real” lives, and although I am so happy for them the thought of it happening to me comes with mixed feelings. I think to myself, “hurry, quick, figure out what will make you happy because when you have a husband and kids you won’t have time to play this guessing game. Playing Russian roulette with your life is one thing but playing it with theirs will have much bigger consequences.” The pressure of figuring this thing out ASAP is nerve-wrecking.

So what’s my advice to my fellow late twenty-somethings who are yearning for more but not sure how to get to the Promised Land? I’ll let you know when I find out.